Many marijuana activists always thought California would be the first state to legalize the drug for recreational use, but their dreams faded in 2010 when the state's voters rejected Proposition 19.
Yet the legalization measure's poor timing, lackluster funding and vague regulatory plan offered vital lessons that allowed activists in Colorado and Washington state to succeed last month where California had failed. Now activists in the Golden State are, in turn, scrutinizing those states' successful campaigns to prepare themselves for another California measure down the road.
"This isn't over until we say it's over, and we won't say it's over until we win," said Dale Sky Jones, chairwoman of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform.
Jones, executive chancellor of Oakland's Oaksterdam University (a cannabis industry training school) said California's next effort is already under way. Proposition 19's backers hosted a summit meeting Dec. 7 at Oaksterdam with the people behind five other legalization measures that failed to make it onto the ballot in the past two years. The groups agreed to work together to avoid competing measures.
"The coalition in California is now stronger than ever and bigger than ever and moving forward," Jones said, adding that activists will probably put their full effort behind a measure on 2016's presidential election ballot, though it hasn't ruled out 2014.
California's pot activists might have better luck next time, said Jonathan Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon University professor whose research focuses on marijuana legalization. "The general trajectory of support nationwide is increasing and reaching a tipping point," he said.
Los Gatos-Monte Sereno police Chief Scott Seaman, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said law enforcement agencies are watching Colorado and Washington, too -- with the expectation that the federal ban on marijuana will make those states' laws unworkable. And that, he said, would be for the best.
"I am deeply concerned for our youth, who could misinterpret legalization as permission for them to engage even more in consumption," he said.
Alison Holcomb, campaign director for Washington's Initiative 502, said Proposition 19 offered encouragement. Only 46.5 percent of voters supported it, yet it still got more votes than Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in November 2010. And that was in a nonpresidential election, with limited funding in a state with some of the nation's costliest media markets. "That gave us a lot of hope this could be done sooner than advocates had thought possible," Holcomb said.
But Holcomb, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington's drug policy director, said Washington activists also looked at California's exit polls and newspaper editorials. Not one editorial board backed Proposition 19, she said, "not even in San Francisco or Berkeley."
To win endorsements and voter support, they realized, their initiative needed to propose a full statewide regulatory system for production, distribution and taxation, instead of a hodgepodge of local statutes as Proposition 19 would have allowed, Holcomb said.
Also, they saw Californians had worried about legalization's impact on safe driving, so they drafted their measure to include DUI standards for THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets people high.
Similarly, the backers of Colorado's Amendment 64 talked to Proposition 19's proponents soon after the 2010 defeat, said Colorado campaign co-director Brian Vicente. They, too, saw the need for a state-run regulatory program rather than a local patchwork.
"This was regimented in terms of how we laid out that marijuana should be taxed like alcohol, and that made a lot of sense to people," he said, noting that earmarking a big chunk of the projected tax revenue for schools also helped.
Vicente also credits Amendment 64's success to its being on the ballot in a presidential election, which attracts more young and minority voters. "Those voting blocs really support ending the drug war," he said.
Colorado and Washington voters 21 and older are now free to inhale as they wish, but Carnegie Mellon University's Caulkins -- a former co-director of Rand's Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica -- said the bigger deal is what will come over the next year as the two states enact laws regulating production, distribution and sales, as the initiatives require. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration won't kick in every stoner's door, but could target big, for-profit marijuana farms and stores, he predicted.
In an ABC News interview that aired Friday, President Barack Obama said recreational marijuana users in the two states should not be a "top priority" of federal law enforcement. But that's similar to what he has said about people using marijuana as medicine in 18 states, including California, that allow it.
Yet the federal government still pressures or prosecutes growers and sellers in medical marijuana states, so the president's words offered no assurances that the same won't be true in Colorado and Washington.
"It sounds like the same failed policy and selective prosecution will continue," Jones said.
Caulkins agreed. "This is an election that absolutely did not resolve the issue" of whether the feds or states will be in charge of marijuana laws, he said. "It just put it in play."
A TALE OF THREE BALLOT MEASURES
Californians weren’t persuaded in 2010, but Colorado and Washington state voters in November approved ballot measures that legalized marijuana:
Measure: Proposition 19; November 2010
Result: 46.5 percent yes, 53.5 percent no
Details: Would have let those older than 21 possess and consume marijuana, as well as let state and local governments authorize, regulate and tax commercial marijuana-related activities under certain conditions.
Campaign finance: Raised $3.14 million, spent $3.22 million
Measure: Initiative 502; November 2012
Result: 55.7 percent yes, 44.3 percent no
Details: Lets those older than 21 possess and consume marijuana; allows production, processing and sales subject to licensing and regulation by state liquor control board; imposes 25 percent excise tax on wholesale and retail sales; earmarks revenue for substance-abuse prevention, research, education, health care and other purposes; amends DUI laws to include THC blood concentration.
Campaign finance: Raised $6.17 million, spent $6.13 million
Measure: Amendment 64; November 2012
Result: 55.3 percent yes, 44.7 percent no
Details: Lets those older than 21 possess and consume marijuana; allows licensing of farms, factories, testing facilities and retail stores, but lets local governments regulate or prohibit; requires Assembly to enact excise tax on wholesale sales, with first $40 million in revenue directed to public school capital construction assistance fund; requires Assembly to enact laws for farming, processing and sale of industrial hemp
Campaign finance: Raised $2.03 million, spent $1.97 million